Friday, October 21, 2022

Exploring the language of dance through two French performances at Belfast International Arts Festival #BIAF22

I can rarely claim to fully understand what’s being said, or feel secure that I know what I’ve heard, at contemporary dance performances. The grammar is often illusive. The meaning is hidden behind gestures and movements that may have symbolism that carries through from some of the traditional repertoire, but I see so little of it that not enough has permeated into my subconscious to be a useful decoder.

Tonight’s double bill of performances in The MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival featured French works choreographed by Noé Soulier that speak about the storytelling of dance.

In The Kingdom of Shades – Signe Blanc, Vincent Chaillet purposefully deconstructs both ballet steps and, later, the mimed hand gestures that dancers so frequently use. Thirty-six spotlights beam down around the circumference of the totally bare stage … a sure sign that deconstruction is afoot. The former Principal Dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet works through a glossary of ballet steps; then pieces them together in a routine; then leaves out all but the linking steps, an altogether flatter performance; then just the artistic steps, a shorter but more vigorous sequence. Without the linking movements, the main steps have less space to breath, less time to tell their story. The performance is silent, accompanied only by the dancer’s panting and the sound of his ballet shoes sliding across the rubber floor.

Chaillet then plays with form by running together excepts from 19th century ballets – crossing between masculine, feminine and fairy characters – and despite us knowing to look out for what we expect should be recognisable elements from ‘The Swiss Milkmaid’ or The Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake, the moves merge into one contiguous piece with no obvious boundaries or changes of style. We’ve been foxed.

His final routine shifts the focus to hand and arm gestures. We’re first taught a dictionary of French terms, in alphabetical order (they appear in English as surtitles behind the dancer). But then he transgresses, saying one word but performing the action of another. In time, the audience catch on to this deliberate misbehaviour. The contradiction begins to tell a different, confused and dissonant story, abstract yet not with full meaning.

The stage is quickly reset – a grand piano slides out from the wings and a glittery-coated pianist/singer sits behind it – and it’s the turn of Portrait of Frédéric Tavernini. The eponymous dancer is also playing with story, but with a more personal focus.

“Fred has eight tattoos” chants the pianist while he stabs out chords. They document a family breakup, his love for his daughter, how he copes, his feeling that nothing will be the same. The music makes it a lighter work to follow, though the narration (in English this time) nearly overpowers and overrides the more abstract storytelling of Fred’s movements. We chuckle when the pianist pipes up again to reveal “Since we made this piece Fred has another nine tattoos!” 

Later his fingers do their own dancing in a pool of water – the front row feel more than a few splashes – before he jumps in with his whole body.

When a dictionary and its grammar are agreed, storytelling can be universal. Without agreement, then signs, gestures and movements can end up telling different stories to different pairs of eyes. Something that the former Chancellor and former Prime Minister of the UK may be reflecting on – given their problematic economic announcements that spooked the markets they were meant to encourage with a message about future growth – as they sit on the green subs bench for the next period in Parliament. And something that the young dancers in tonight’s audience may also reflect upon as they work towards their next public performance and practise the choreography intended to convey a particular meaning to their audience.

Check out the preview post from a few weeks ago to find out what other treats Belfast International Arts Festival is serving up between now and 6 November.

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